Somewhere new

The day after our big powder adventure I snatched a few brief hours of sleep before heading back out on the road before dawn, bound for the Coquihalla with a crew from the Meetup group. As the windshield wipers beat away the rain and the unusually snowy fields of the Fraser Valley rolled by outside I gave thanks that I’d had time to pick up a large coffee on the way.

We met up with the other members of the group at the Zopkios exit. The other girl who was signed up pulled a no-show, so once again it was me and the big burly guys heading into the woods. With the exception of the two guided tours we did at Baker I’ve always been the only girl on these trips, which other people tend to assume might be an issue but really doesn’t bother me.

Our destination was Flatiron Peak, a new area for me. I’d been warned that the first 90 minutes or so of the climb would be very steep, and I was curious to see how my legs would handle this after more than a thousand metres of climbing the day before. We left the salt sheds and headed sharply upwards through trees laden with new snow on a trail that couldn’t have been more perfect. I absolutely love this kind of skinning: steep enough for a solid cardio burn, and just technical enough to be completely mentally engaging.

I swear it wasn’t even close to 90 minutes later that we broke out on the ridge. The climb seemed to disappear in a flash. We headed onwards through a winter wonderland of ridgetop glades, glimpses of the strange rock formations on Needle Peak appearing here and there through the clouds.

Needle Ridge

We were all hoping that the weather would start to improve and look more like the forecast, which had promised mostly sun. Instead it continued to deteriorate as we emerged on a wind-scoured section of the ridge and the clouds closed in around us. We carried on through a bizarre, compelling landscape of frozen, windblown trees encased in rime and ice. There was no sign of the new snow here; the wind had ripped it all from the ridge long ago. We continued climbing over spooky, strangely hollow ice that occasionally cracked and buckled under our skis as we passed weak points near buried rocks.

Needle Ridge trees

The whiteout intensified as we neared our destination. The other skiers became ghosts in the mist, floating in a formless landscape where there was no distinction between earth and sky. Every now and then a rimed, windrazed tree would provide a moment of definition, only to be lost as soon as we passed it. Negotiating an icy passage around a barely seen rock band, the cloud shifted just for a second to reveal a massive drop just a few metres to our right. It was a strange and slightly eerie experience to be in a new place and so utterly blind.

Whiteout

The bowl itself, when we reached it, was nothing. Just shades of white in an endless sea without definition or context. We set a steep skintrack up to the top, where we stopped for lunch in a windscoured, icy hollow that could have been anywhere. In spite of our hopes the whiteout didn’t ease during our break, and we transitioned for a ski down that we’d all accepted wasn’t going to live up to expectations.

Picnic spot

To be honest, I’d thought that I would have to sideslip the entire bowl on the way down. But I managed it better than I expected. We stayed grouped close together and with the other skiers to provide definition, I was able to execute a few reasonable turns even though I had absolutely no sense of where my skis were. A true whiteout is such an incredibly strange thing. You literally cannot tell up from down; you might as well be floating, lost in space. Looking at what you’re trying to do makes things worse. You have to rely on sensation, not sight.

Flatiron bowl, whiteout

We made it back to the exit point, then started back along the ridge. The ice didn’t seem quite as bad the second time around. And then, as we crossed a large rock formation on the way back, the clouds suddenly shifted and revealed wind-protected glades to our right: steep, beautiful, full of fresh powder.┬áThere wasn’t much discussion, since we knew this was our shot. We did a quick check on the time, and dropped in. With the previous powder day under my belt I skied it better than I’ve skied glades before, able to duck in and out of the trees and seek out the best spots for turns. The snow was fantastic.

Needle Ridge glades

We regrouped above a gully, and transitioned for a swift, steep climb out. Having pretty much given up on the chance of good downhill turns, everyone was smiling at this point. The rest of the ridge passed by in a flash, and then we took our skins off and surfed back down through the powder glades – where we were able to get many more excellent turns – to the start of the steep descent through the trees.

This was where things went slightly sideways. We were aiming to descend just a little to the left of our route up, but we ended up traversing way too far over. The trees were densely packed on the steep slopes, and ground cover still isn’t that good. I know that if I’d gotten myself into a ski out like that at the start of last season, I would have been questioning how the hell I was ever going to make it down.

Needle Ridge trees

This time, I didn’t feel that way. I took my time, scoped out my turns, sideslipped a little here and there when necessary, and kept heading steadily downwards. Branches whacked me in the face, and every now and then I’d sling an arm around a tree and use it to propel me into a particularly tight turn. It was hard work, especially on legs that had just done two days of back-to-back climbing, and unquestionably challenging, but it was also manageable. I never doubted that I’d be able to keep going, and although I buried my tips a few times I didn’t fall.

One of the group was having a pretty hard time by this point, and it was interesting hearing his repeated comment that it was “bullshit skiing.” There’s hard skiing and there’s easy skiing, but I’m not sure there’s such a thing as bullshit skiing. The whole point of taking on tough things is that you learn from them and are better prepared to do it next time, which is definitely not bullshit. If you want to ski in the backcountry, you have to be prepared to deal with difficult conditions and challenging skiing. And you have to love the sweat and the slog and the difficulty because that’s why it’s still an amazing, mostly untouched thing. If it were easy, the backcountry would be just another resort. Every tough moment makes you fitter, stronger, more prepared for whatever comes next.

We eventually escaped the trees – with only one very brief bootpack over a large fallen log – and then skinned a couple of kilometres back up a gas line clearcut to the parking lot. On the final skin, I was so amazed that my legs didn’t feel done and I was even able to step up my pace toward the end. When I checked the GPS, I’d clocked up almost 2,500m of cumulative elevation gain in two days.

It was an interesting day out. Perhaps not the best conditions we could have asked for, but there were some good lessons in group dynamics, a really positive experience for me on the final descent through the trees, and always that sense of accomplishment that comes from having been somewhere new and pushed the boundaries just a little bit further than they’ve been pushed before.

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